Twice now, Sarah Dessen has surprised me. I don’t know why, but I keep thinking her books will be shallow and age-dated. Perhaps it’s the way her books are marketed, the covers on them and such. One way or another, though, Lock and Key really surprised me last fall, and now Just Listen has done the same. You’d think I’d have learned the first time around, but I apparently didn’t.
It’s hard to describe this book without giving away too many points. In the beginning, you learn that Annabel is going back to school, now shunned by her best friend and consequently most of the school. At home there are problems too, and Annabel, the youngest daughter of three, continues to do whatever she thinks her mother needs, in order not to rock the boat too much. This includes continuing to model long after she’s ceased to be interested in the modeling business. Hiding out from all her problems, Annabel strikes up a shaky friendship with a fellow classmate that has always scared and intimidated her.
That’s all I want to say about the plot. It sounds like an issues book, particularly when it comes to the inside look at the modeling industry and all the things wrapped up in that (pressure, duel identity, eating disorders, etc), but it’s not. At least, it doesn’t beat you over the head with issues. It’s a quiet book, where characters feel like real people more than characters. The secrets are guessable, but that doesn’t matter because it’s more about what happens when you keep the secrets in. There’s a line between honesty – complete and total honesty – and the inherent dishonesty in not speaking your mind because you’re afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. I loved this.
And that brings up the final thing I want to say about Just Listen: of all the characters, I loved Owen the best. I loved what he stood for and how he acknowledged his own imperfections. I loved that he took responsibility for everything he did and said, and how he tried to never, ever lie in any way. That’s a hard way of living, to always be honest even if the truth hurts, but he did it anyway. I wish more people were like him.